Forced to search for a scarce primary care physician or nurse, I joined 700,000 British Columbians without one.

Mark L Winston 5 Jan 2022 |

Mark L. Winston is a professor and senior fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. His writing awards include the Governor General’s Literary Award for his book Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.

Fewer to go around. As part of a project the author interviewed primary care physicians to understand why they were leaving their practices and what would make them stay. Image via Shutterstock.

[Excerpts] I was cut loose by my primary care doctor a few months ago. My struggle to find a new one made personal a widely shared problem. For many years now, there have not been nearly enough family doctors and nurse practitioners to meet demand. Nor have the models of how they practice delivered the quality and timeliness of primary health care we hope for.

When Dr. G. (I’ll call him) closed his practice, he moved to Telus Health, a private option that offers patients a LifePlus program for $4,650 a year.

With that tacked on to the medical services plan fees they bill the government, Telus provides premium care to those willing and able to pay, including fast access to your personal primary care physician or nurse practitioner, 30-minute appointments, a soup-to-nuts annual checkup, rapid access to specialists and associated dieticians, kinesiologists, nurses, psychologists and other professionals.

Dr. G. is an excellent physician, often ranked in the top 10 family doctors in British Columbia by rate-my-doctor, but he’s had challenges on the business side. He’s worked in five different settings since 2007, when I became his patient, including two stints running his own office and three different times in walk-in clinics.

His farewell letter to patients noted that he was attracted to Telus by their supportive care model, preventative health program, low patient-to-physician ratio and administrative support. His previous clinic is not replacing him, which placed me in good company. According to the Canadian Medical Association, five million Canadians don’t have primary care. For B.C., a little over 700,000 British Columbians have no family doctor or nurse practitioner providing primary care.

My first stop: the Vancouver Division of Family Practice, which lists clinics or physicians taking on new patients. I checked again and again, finding only one option: a physician who had just moved to B.C. from another province, but whose profile from his previous practice included numerous complaints and poor ratings.

I then turned to my social media connections and received some leads, which turned out to be dead ends. All were full up.

Two root causes

The crisis in primary care is pretty easy to understand, based in two factors, both of which our provincial government is aware of and has committed to change. Number one is not enough family doctors and nurse practitioners to serve our population, while the second root cause is a system of primary care delivery that has increasingly come to depend on walk-in clinics.

As a senior fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, I’m often asked to facilitate workshops and strategic conversations. A few years ago I had the opportunity to explore with family doctors how they practised their craft, and what they might prefer in the future.

This deep dive into primary care was sponsored by a non-profit health care think tank, the Institute for Health System Transformation and Sustainability, and resulted in a report, Physician Heal Thyself, that uncovered the physician’s perspective that walk-in clinics had decimated British Columbia’s primary care ecosystem. But my interviews and focus groups also revealed a love-hate dynamic with walk-ins; many doctors prefer them to the traditional office model that represents primary care’s past, while at the same time bemoaning walk-in shortcomings.

In addition to their high-end fee model, Telus established a virtual walk-in clinic called Babylon in 2018 that made it even easier for family doctors to practise the walk-in model through a call-in system. Over a million patients are enrolled across Canada. Like a physical walk-in, they see a random physician, and their virtual visits are paid for by provincial governments with no additional fees to patients.

Few of the doctors we talked with found practising in a walk-in model to be professionally or personally satisfying. They pointed to lack of continuity in patient care as a serious deficiency in the walk-in model, and lack of health records a real barrier to providing adequate care for one-off patients. They also pointed to pressure to see large numbers of patients, and an oversimplified approach to the health care of patients with complex problems. In short, our report noted: “Walk-ins can be profitable for the physician and clinic owner, but do not provide good primary care for patients.”

Why do family doctors, and more recently nurse practitioners, work in walk-in models at all? They are trading off quality of care for no overhead costs, more rapid payback of student loan debts, and reduction of the massive amount of paperwork associated with the fee-for-service models ubiquitous in Canadian health care.

Read more at: My Doctor Dumped Me. Here’s Why That’s So Common